In August of 1995, Rhonda Provost of Forestville, California, became the first woman to run from Badwater in the heart of Death Valley to the peak of Mt. Whitney, and back—a distance of nearly 300 miles. The course is famous for starting at the lowest point (-282 feet) in the Western Hemisphere and running to the highest point (14,494 feet) in the contiguous U.S. Death Valley is also famous for sporting the highest summer temperatures in the world.
She completed the grueling course in 143:45, just under six days. In the process, she became the eighth runner to complete the “out-and-back” course.
Rhonda had served as the medical director in 1989 for the first-ever out-and-back attempt on the course, which was made by Tom Crawford and her husband, Rich Benyo. Both were successful in their attempt. In the process, Rhonda developed some revolutionary—and unique—medical approaches to on-course treatment, including the use of duct tape as a “first skin.” By fashioning a foot covering of duct tape to Tom’s and Rich’s feet, she theorized that at least for the first day of running, the duct tape would take most of the abuse of the 200+ degree heat of the roads, saving the runners’ feet from early blistering. (In later years, the duct tape was replaced with even better tapes which helped to reduce, or even prevent, blisters for the duration of the race.)
As a nurse anesthetist, she also applied her expertise once blisters did develop. She had served for several years as medical director at various aid stations at the Western States 100, and had assembled The Red Box, a metal medical kit that set new standards for completeness.
She also served as medical director for Rich Benyo’s second (1991) attempt at the out-and-back and at Tom Crawford’s one-way attempt that year. She again provided medical support at Rich’s successful third attempt on the out-and-back course in 1992.
For her own 1995 attempt to run the out-and-back course, her crew consisted of her husband Rich as crew chief, Jean Ennis (who with Tom Crawford comprised the U.S. team in the first-ever official “race” on the course, that in 1987), “Uncle Billy” Owens (uncle of Tom’s wife Nancy, and frequent crew member for Crawford and Benyo), and Tony Gilbert, a massage therapist. Denise Jones served as her mountain crew.
“Even 11 years after the fact, the Death Valley out-and-back remains (and I’m confident will always remain) one of the high points of my life,” Rhonda commented recently, “not because I completed it, or the first woman thing, because, quite frankly, other than the rest of the team, no one even knew we were doing it.
“To this day, what I learned about myself and others during the event serves me well. When my soul gets tested in life, I remind myself that we are not alone in any of this. There exists a great over-riding force of which we are part. And we can effect outcomes for good or evil depending on where our hearts are. It’s a rather spiritual perspective, but it’s what inspired me to run the course in the first place. It was a spiritual quest which quite literally became a divinely inspired run.”
Rhonda also offered medical seminars at several of the unofficial pre-race “camps” in Death Valley during the early 1990s and has frequently offered presentations on the course and its challenges.
She also served as medical director and crew for Canadian Steve King at the 2001 Badwater Ultramarathon and for Texan Joe Prusaitis in 2003.
She continues to enjoy visits to Death Valley in order to tap into its more spiritual and inspiring aspects.
Rhonda was inducted into the Badwater Hall of Fame in 2006, Rhonda read the following as part of her acceptance speech: